A Country of Cities

A Country of Cities

Coldplay may be wrong – just because we’re losing may in fact mean that we’re lost. We are at a crossroads as a nation, and currently, despite all the hope generated by President Obama, we’re not yet on the right path.

At the Federal level, one has to wonder if there is an Asphalt Lobby, because if there is, they must be partying like it’s 2008. The stimulus bill passed earlier in the year feeds rather than fixes our ill-conceived land use patterns, resulting in new “infrastructure” that runs the risk of being little more than a grab bag of roadway construction. The bill’s criteria mandate that projects, in order to qualify for federal funding, must be “shovel ready,” must be compliant with the existing regulatory regime including NEPA, and must be complete in two years after commencement. The much touted $8 billion of stimulus funds for high speed rail is negligible in terms of what is needed. Common estimates for high speed rail in the northeast corridor run $25-$30 billion. This sounds high until one considers that one third of the nation’s air traffic goes through New York, sitting on tarmacs behind turboprops unconscionably flying from Newark to Philadelphia. Nationwide, the needs are probably around $150 billion. This also sounds high, until you consider the checks we write to bail out banks, fund failing auto makers, and care for the human ailments – spanning from asthma to obesity – that result from urban sprawl.

And now we hear that the much more critical legislative vehicle for funding infrastructure, the “ISTEA” reauthorization scheduled for passage in 2010, has been delayed by the Administration. They have instead funded a stop gap measure for the next eighteen months, thereby allowing themselves room to maneuver on health care and cap-and-trade, particularly as a Congressional election year approaches. To be sure, these are worthwhile initiatives, but one wonders whether infrastructure will once again be postponed for future generations, forever misconceived as something that adds to rather than reduces Federal deficits.

Little of vision can come of this approach – no true high speed rail, no new power generation, no densification of our sprawling, anonymous national landscape.

And the most shocking part is that we’re being told that it’s OK.

We are being told, in the end, that sprawl is just fine, that if we just weatherize our McMansions, drive hybrid Yukons, and change to fluorescent lightbulbs, our gluttonous use of land is legitimate. It is from Silicon Valley, where sprawl is high art, that progressives fuel the mentality that technology will save us from ourselves. (As an aside, one only need to look at the viral spread of this approach to the physical landscape of the Indian IT sector, where smart minds, office parks, and malls prevail.)

This tacit sanction of sprawl is of course politically deft. “Regionalists” have smartly framed the issue as planning for a United States now defined by a series of large regions in which some seventy percent of the populous reside. By uncritically granting legitimacy to the exurbs and suburbs, a true confrontation around land use policy can thus be avoided, as can concepts like urbanity, undeveloped nature, and loss of elections.

We would be wise to remember that the suburbs were a Federal creation – built out of a fear of race, as well as a nuclear arms race. White flight was synthetic, fueled by a set of policies intended to encourage the use of cars and discourage the use of cities.

Imagine instead that we had a market-based approach to the use of land, in which people pay for what economists call the negative externalities of their own behavior. This would mean no more subsidized highways, no more mortgage deductions, and no more free rides at the gas pump. People would have to pay for the congestion, the pollution, and the health care problems that they themselves create. In such a scenario, the suburbs would likely shrink, and the exurbs would likely atrophy altogether.

Imagine what would result. Imagine dense green urbanity, surrounded by nothing but nature. Imagine lanes of interstates reused for high speed rail. Imagine a healthy population that walks and bikes throughout their neighborhoods, and rides transit to their jobs. Imagine New Jersey as a nature preserve. Imagine being number one for takeoff.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is an Executive Vice President of Related Companies, where he runs the design and planning operations for the firm’s extensive development portfolio. Chakrabarti also leads the design and planning efforts for the Hudson Rail Yards and Moynihan Station projects.